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Why is coral so controversial?

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

As today is World Oceans Day, it’s time to have a conversation about coral jewellery.  What is coral and why is coral so controversial?

Like the bones in our body and pearls, coral is made of calcium carbonate. The coral we see in jewellery is formed from the external skeletons of plant-like underwater organisms called coral polyps. Colonies of these tiny polyps grow, die and repeat this cycle over generations, building up huge structures over time. Once harvested, coral is polished to produce beads, cabochons and irregular-shaped branches for use in jewellery.

There are many different types of coral, but we refer to the coral used in jewellery as ‘precious’ coral. Historically, precious coral referred to the genus Corallium, a deep red to pink variety that commands the highest prices. Nowadays, the term ‘precious’ is used to refer to any coral made into jewellery, including Antipatharia (black), Heliopora Coerulea (blue) or Gerardia (gold), among others.

Traditionally, Corallium was harvested in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, this type of coral grows only a millimetre per year and decades of over harvesting has decimated natural coral reefs—not only in the Mediterranean, but also the world over. This is disastrous for marine life, as coral reefs provide the planet with some of its richest and most biologically diverse ecosystems.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has attempted to address this but getting countries to agree to protective legislation has proven to be extremely difficult.   Farming coral for reef restoration and for aquariums is possible, but precious coral grows too slowly and in conditions that are too difficult to make commercial farming viable. 

Much of the coral on sale in markets and fairs is bamboo coral, a porous, white variety of deep-sea coral that has been filled, dyed red and polished to imitate the more expensive Corallium. Unfortunately bamboo coral is not a more sustainable choice, as continued demand for coral is creating the same problems for reefs of bamboo coral as it has done for the more sought-after types.

Because of the environmental and ethical issues surrounding coral jewellery, many jewellers no longer use it in their collections, from big names like Tiffany and Co, who stopped selling coral jewellery in 2004, to independent artisan jewellers and craftspeople.


Ultimately, the only way to wear coral jewellery sustainably is to look for antique or vintage pieces—our oceans are far more precious than strings of coral beads!

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Kim Rix GG GIA

Be sure | Be smart | Buy with confidence

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